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55 reasons why Cuba's old cars will keep on rolling

A mid-1950s Studebaker in Havana, one of as many as 60,000 old American cars in Cuba.
   JUST TWO events would take Cuba's vast stock (30,000? 60,000?) of pre-1960 cars off the island's urban streets and country roads.
One is retirement in favour of more modern vehicles. The other is their sale and export to collectors elsewhere.
   Neither will happen anytime soon – and one might not happen at all. Here are five reasons why Cuba's old-timers have many more miles to travel (I know, the headline says 55, but five should be plenty):

1. The embargo remains

   Barack Obama and Raúl Castro can, and did, agree to restore full diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, but only the U.S. Congress can rescind the 1996 Helms-Burton Act that fortified trade sanctions ordered by President John F. Kennedy 34 years earlier.
   And the Republicans who hold Congress, and who do not share Obama's desire for rapprochement, will have little motivation to abandon a law that requires wholesale reform in Cuba, starting with the ouster of Raúl and Fidel Castro, before the embargo can be lifted.
   That may be change, eventually, as the influence in the Republican party of old-line Cuban-Americans (aka Castro-detesters) wanes, and as the lawmakers realize their position is increasingly at odds with American voter sentiment.
   Until then, however, Obama or subsequent presidents can merely tinker with the restrictions. More Americans may be able to travel to Cuba on "educational exchanges." American food producers may gain the right to sell to Cuba on credit, rather than cash-only.
   But boatloads of new Ford Fusions and Chevy Impalas? Can't happen with Helms-Burton in place.

2. Cuban pockets are empty

   Cuba's ally, Venezuela, which supplies its Caribbean neighbour with subsidized fuel, is staggering under runaway inflation, political turmoil and collapsing oil prices. Cuba owes its previous benefactor, Russia, some $3.2 billion U.S., even after Russia forgave 90 per cent of Cuba's Soviet-era debt.
   And those reforms you've heard about to allow private restaurants and similar small businesses? They are aimed more at reining in Cuba's underground economy than putting money in the hands of citizens.
   Tourism and exports of nickel, sugar and medicine are keeping the lights on – mostly. But, save for a few Chinese Geelys for the police and rental fleets, there's no money for new vehicles. 

Four-door '55 Chevrolet Bel Air is eye-pleasing but not particularly valuable.

3. Classic, but not so collectible

   Most of Cuba's old cars are low-to-mid-range four-door sedans; nice to look at, but hardly must-haves for collectors. And most have been painted and repainted, welded and rewelded, with Volga or Toyota engines replacing their original flathead V-8s and Blue Flame 6s. Rare is the unmolested convertible or hardtop that collectors desire.
   True, there are some fine classics, either preserved over the decades or rebuilt by bodymen who are remarkable at their craft. But cars that would meet the collector's triple standard of rarity, desirability and condition would probably number in the hundreds, at most.

4. And who says they're for sale?

   Even in the harsh days following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, Cuba allowed only a trickle of old cars to go to outside buyers. And those were sold by the state, not by the few individuals allowed at the time to own cars and trucks.
   Private vehicle ownership today is open to all citizens, or at least all who can afford Cuba's mountainous car prices, but the island remains far from the unfettered auto market in which these owners could sell to foreigners.
   And the government has a good reason to block such exports.
Cuba knows the value of its old cars to the tourist industry. It knows that the image of a pontoon-fendered convertible on a Havana street is as much a symbol of the island as a Montecristo cigar or Tropicana chorus dancer.
   It's why Cuba already earmarks the best of its bechromed Buicks and jet-finned Dodges to serve as taxis outside hotels (even cutting off sedan roofs to create more convertibles).
   That the pastel-coloured American cars are also ironic symbols of Cuban defiance might or might not register on the tourists who hire them. But when the embargo ends they will still be picturesque and charming, and they'll still make the island unique.
   Cuba won't let them slip away to Scottsdale or Zurich.

5. Cuba's transportation future

   In a country famous for cars, few people own vehicles. According to a University College London research paper, Cuba had just 15 cars per 1,000 inhabitants in 2008, compared to 188 in Jamaica and about 800 in the United States. Since the revolution, the priority has been public transit, mainly by purpose-built bus or converted truck.
   For transportation planners, Cuba is an enticing opportunity to leap straight to sophisticated, efficient mass transit, avoiding the congestion and emissions that accompanied the rapid expansion of private vehicles in places like India and China. The long and narrow island is ideal for high-speed rail; densely populated Havana stands ready for modern trams to run along its old electric-railway corridors.
   When this will happen will depend on many events, within Cuba and elsewhere. But the day will come when you can cross Havana in an Alstom or Bombardier or similar light-rail car, and at the central station board a Chinese-build CRRC bullet train that will whisk you to Cienfuegos or Santiago at 350 km/h.
   And as you hurtle through the countryside you will see through the window a turquoise-and-white dot that soon reveals itself as a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air, trailing blue smoke as it dodges potholes on a two-lane road between cane fields, and just as quickly becomes smaller and smaller but, in Cuba, never quite disappears.

On the road since 1955, Ford Fairlane will likely travel many more miles yet.


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